Price war 'anarchy' in clothes trade: A Yorkshire businessman is taking on the might of men's clothing retailers by selling suits from his Victorian mill on the outskirts of Bradford. Roger Tredre reports

A MAVERICK Yorkshire millionaire, obsessed with the high price of men's clothing, has taken on the country's retailers.

Jonathan Silver, 43, an entrepreneur from Bradford, believes that 'price innovation' is the way out of recession. To prove his point, he has opened a shop selling arguably the best value-for-money suits in Britain, in a Victorian mill on the outskirts of Bradford.

Salt's Clothing Company opened last month without publicity. It is one of the biggest menswear stores in the country, selling top-quality classic English tailored suits at two prices: pounds 100 and pounds 120.

Mr Silver, who made his money in the Seventies with the hugely profitable 11-outlet chain of Jonathan Silver menswear stores in the north of England, says he wants to shake up the clothing trade. 'Prices have gone down and down over the years in the electronics world - pocket calculators, videos, camcorders. But clothes have got more and more expensive. I don't see why that should be so.'

Mr Silver sold his stores in 1979 and left the clothing trade. Fourteen years on, he has returned with the enthusiasm of a missionary.

He said: 'The reason suits are not selling is simple: men can't afford them any more. In the mid-Seventies, the cost of a suit might represent half a man's average net weekly wage. Now it's the entirety.'

That suit sales nationwide are sliding is not in dispute. In the second half of 1992, retailers sold 2.5 million suits, half a million less than in the same period in 1991. However, other retailers believe sales have fallen because of changing fashions.

Mr Silver has been obsessed with price since he opened his first shop in Manchester in 1971. He upset local retailers by selling mohair trousers for pounds 3.50, half the price of other shops.

The scale of his new venture, however, may upset rather more than a few local competitors. Mr Silver has thrown an anarchic spanner into the clothing retail trade. He explained his strategy simply. 'All I'm doing is buying my cloth locally, getting it made up locally, and working on a very low margin. If I make pounds 25, I'm happy. Now that's anarchistic within the context of traditional retailing.'

It certainly is. Most clothing retailers mark up their cost prices by 280 per cent. An imported suit that costs pounds 40 to make might cost pounds 150 by the time it reaches the shops. Retailers blame overhead costs, particularly rents.

Mr Silver has an inestimable advantage over high street retailers. He pays no rent because he owns the 10,000 square foot site of the store. To be more precise, he owns the entire building in which it is located: Salt's Mill, a 17-acre Grade II listed building erected in the 1850s.

At this unusual location, Mr Silver is putting his theories into practice. His vast store, hung with Matisse prints and decorated with cacti, sells mohair-wool suits for pounds 120, silk-linen jackets for pounds 65, and cotton shirts and trousers for pounds 20 and pounds 27. He has also opened a cafe there where every dish is priced at pounds 2.95. 'I won't make any money on that, but it's another way of making the point.'

Mr Silver accepts that his store is unique, but he argues that his strategy has relevance for all retailers. 'The public is interested in value for money. High street retailers need to reduce their margins, use English goods, and, if need be, move out of the High Street to look for lower rentals.'

He is well-known locally for the unconventional uses to which he has put the Salt's mill complex, which he bought from Illingworth Morris, the textile firm in 1987. He runs an art gallery in the spinning shed displaying the works of his friend David Hockney.

Opera North staged a production of West Side Story in the weaving shed in 1988. The Royal National Theatre staged a Tony Harrison play in the cloth finishing room in 1990.

(Photographs omitted)

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